What a classic!
Most people play Mega Man 1 only after playing one of the sequels. Luckily, I was able to play this one first. I was looking for NES games to rent and picked this one up. The art on the box was bad which drew my attention to it. Usually the first games for the NES had awful art so I was curious enough to take it home.
The gameplay is Megaman being able to run, jump, and shoot his gun (though never being able to shoot up). He can take damage but recharges himself with energy capsules that enemies often leave behind. At the end of each stage, Mega Man fights a boss (a similiar robot to Mega Man). Once all the 6 robots are defeated, you go through the final stages of Dr. Wily's Castle.
If this was all there was, Mega Man 1 would have been the last Mega Man. There were two gimmicks that made this game insanely addictive.
There is no beginning level! First thing when you put up the game is you have a level selection screen of six levels. If you have trouble in one area, you go to another. This concept was novel at the time and greatly appealed to me (and others) since I HATED getting stuck at a single level. If I got stuck in a level, I could play another level. In effect, I had much more access to game content than a linear level design.
When you defeated a boss at the end of the level, you obtained that boss's power. So if you defeated Fire Man, you got his fire attack. Ice Man would give you an ice attack. Electric Man gave you an electic attack, etc. Cutman had a boomerang type cutter. Gutsman would give you the ability to lift giant blocks. Bombman, of course, gave you bombs.
With a new weapon, it freshened up the remaining game content. The fire weapon made Iceman's stage much easier and the ice weapon made Fireman's stage easy as well. The weapons also would trigger weaknesses in certain bosses. Bombman's bombs were very effective on gutsman. Gutsman's block lifting ability came in handy against Cutsman. This gave the game massive replayability.
The final stages were interesting too, even though they fit the standard linear level mode. The bosses were very creative, especially the big yellow one who would move across the room in small little pieces (you would have to dodge pieces of himself as he did this). The final stages featured a puzzle element as you had to know when to use the correct weapon in the right spot (and for the right bosses). You also didn't have your weapons recharge so you couldn't waste them. Right before the end, you get to fight all the robot masters again, this time you have all the weapons so wiping them out is easier this time. Then you fight Dr. Wily and its end of game.
The game's graphics were interesting for its time. They were very cartoony and looked very nice. The levels all matched the bosses. Iceman's stage was full of ice (you would slide around). Fireman's stage full of fire. Electric Man's stage full of robots and electrical shocks. Each level was unique and had its own distinct feel.
What made Mega Man a classic was, as I've said, the use of the stage select and upgrading weapons once completing those stages. Nothing like that had been done before!
Gutsman stage was HARD!! The beginning of the level was full of moving platforms that would turn vertical (hence, dropping you to your doom) at spots on their ride. It is very difficult to get through that. The game also had annoying jumping puzzles such as with the appearing blocks. (This MegaMan game is probably one of the hardest in the series.)
The control for this game is so-so compared to the sequels. This is ok, since this was the first game. This game only had 6 robotmasters and stages compared to the standard 8 that would appear. Again, this is no issue since this was the first Megaman.
The lack of a password means you must complete this game in one sitting. However, if you completely run out of lives, you just go back to the stage select screen (with levels you have already completed stay completed). There are midpoints in the levels so if you die, you don't have to start each level at the beginning. Only if you lose all your lives does that occur.
There is a unique 'item' in Electric Man's stage that you must have in order to complete the first level in Dr. Wily's Castle. I didn't know this at the time and had to go back to Electric Man's level. Annoying.
The Bottom Line
A game designed with stage select from the very beginning, with cartoonish fun robots, environment obedient levels, with the capability for your character to steal weapons from the bosses for his own personal use? Sweet!
This game sold very poorly in the US due to bad distribution. This was not the game that launched the franchise, though. Megaman 1 did have some issues that held it from being 'blockbuster' so it was reduced to being a 'cult classic'. The design concepts were what gave this game it's well deserved sequel... it was the sequel that launched the Mega Man franchise.